LINGUIST List 17.3470

Fri Nov 24 2006

All: Obituary: Wolf Leslau, 1906-2006

Editor for this issue: Ann Sawyer <>

Directory         1.    Grover Hudson, Obituary: Wolf Leslau, 1906-2006

Message 1: Obituary: Wolf Leslau, 1906-2006
Date: 23-Nov-2006
From: Grover Hudson <>
Subject: Obituary: Wolf Leslau, 1906-2006

Wolf Leslau, surely the greatest Semiticist linguist of the post-wargeneration, whose work established Ethiopian linguistics as an essentialpart of Semitic studies, died on Nov. 18, at age 100 + four days. He issurvived by two daughters, Elaine and Sylvia, and grandchildren.

Author of a body of work the size and breadth of which it is difficult toimagine anyone again matching, and the content of which it is difficult toimagine anyone again having the competence to match, his life was filledwith love and energy for scholarly work. His publications date from 1933including eleven articles before the appearance of the book Lexique soqotriin 1938, and continue uninterrupted almost to this year (The Verb inMäsqan, 2004). Until recent months he was diligently working on anotherbook, on the Ethiopian Semitic language Gogot. Characteristically, at 80years old he discovered and mastered use of the Macintosh computer,recognizing its usefulness in composing work using phonetic andEuropean-language fonts as well as Ethiopic and other Semitic writing systems.

Born in Poland on Nov. 14, 1906, he moved to Vienna in 1926, where he methis wife Charlotte. In 1931 he took up studies in Paris under Marcel Cohen,on Ethiopian languages. The war would interrupt his studies but not hiswriting: three articles appeared in 1939 and a book documenting Tigrigna,still perhaps the basic source on this important language, in 1941.Escaping nazi-occupied France in 1941, he and his wife reached New York in1942, where he taught at the Asia Institute and the New School for SocialResearch. He moved to Brandeis in 1951. After the war he was able to returnto Paris to submit two books and receive in 1953 the Doctorat-ès-Lettresfrom the Sorbonne. In 1955 Leslau accepted appointment at UCLA, where hefounded the Department of Near Eastern and African Languages (now NearEastern Languages and Cultures) and where he sponsored, taught, andmentored the first generation of Ethiopian modern linguists. In the sixtieshe directed UCLA Amharic-language programs for the U.S. Peace Corps, forwhich purpose he wrote his Amharic Textbook (675 pp., 1965, dedicated tothe memory of President John Kennedy) and his Concise Amharic Dictionary(535 pp., 1976).

A Guggenheim fellowship had first taken him to Ethiopia for field work in1946 where, helped by an audience with Emperor Haile Sellassie I, heavoided payment of a prohibitive fee to import his heavy and bulkyrecording equipment, and proceeded to regions beyond Addis Ababa to gatherthe meticulously written and organized notes which he expanded onsubsequent visits, and was continuing to draw from until this year.Traveling about by mule, he was the first to study in depth most of theSouth Ethiopian Semitic languages, including Gafat (Étude descriptive etcomparative du Gafat, 1956), whose last aging speakers he sought out. Heworked and published on Ethiopian Cushitic and Omotic languages too, and onother Semitic languages. His field notebooks and cards, gathered before thebenefit of computers, were miraculously cross-referenced by hisencyclopedic memory.

Besides linguistics, he published folk-tales, recordings of music, and manyarticles of anthropological interest, and his grammars were often backed upby thoroughly annotated texts on cultural and social topics. He sponsoredthe publication of the first novel written in Chaha. Three hundredpublications were listed in the bibliography of his writings in his 85thbirthday festschrift, Semitic Studies in Honor of Wolf Leslau, A. Kaye, ed.(1991) --with 137 contributors. An earlier festschrift, Ethiopian StudiesDedicated to Wolf Leslau, S. Segert and A. Bodrogligeti, eds. (1983), hadhonored his 75th birthday, and a later festschrift honored his 90thbirthday: Essays on Gurage Language and Culture, G. Hudson, ed. (1996).

It is impossible here to list even highlights of his honors andpublications, but several monumental books finished after his retirementfrom UCLA may be mentioned as indicative of Leslau’s extraordinary energyand creativity: Etymological Dictionary of Gurage (Ethiopic), 3 vols., 2082pp., in 1979; Comparative Dictionary of Ge‘ez, 813 pp., in 1987; FiftyYears of Research (37 selected articles), 503 pp., 1988; Reference Grammarof Amharic, 1044 pp., in 1995; Zway: Ethiopic Documents, Grammar andDictionary, in 1999; and, with his student Thomas Kane, Amharic CulturalReader, in 2001. Mentioned above was The Verb in Mäsqan, in 2004; he wasthen 98 years old!

Volume 9 (2006) of the journal Aethiopica (Siegbert Uhlig, ed.) wasdedicated to him, as “the grand maître of our field. By his lifework WolfLeslau has set milestones for Ethiopian Studies in general, andEthio-Semitic linguistics in particular. No scholar or student today canwork in these fields without his dictionaries, grammar books and texteditions. Leslau has served the academic world for many decades, havingerected a lasting monument for himself by his everlasting energy andindefatigable dedication. His kind personality, engaging manners as well asthe cooperative skills he revealed in his dealings with African colleagueshave been his distinctive mark. The fundamental works his efforts haveproduced will stay with us for many decades to come.”

Those of us who studied with him or knew him otherwise are fortunate tohave known not just the scholar and his work but the informed citizen andgracious gentleman, recalled as a man of subtle humor, knowledgeable andserious on just about any subject, with understanding for the troubles ofEthiopia and Africa, with concern for the progress of Semitic and Ethiopianlinguistics and for the preservation of vanishing languages and cultures.

Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable